Family Matters

Are Crib Bumpers a Nursery Necessity? CPSC Vets their Safety Record

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For nine months of pregnancy, babies-to-be are cushioned in watery darkness. Once they’re sprung, few parents are eager for them to bang their noggins on hard crib rails, hence the indispensable crib bumper. But now in light of what the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) is calling a “re-examination” of bumpers, parents might want to rethink whether they’re really necessary and might, in fact, be dangerous.

Between 1990 and May 2010, the CPSC found 52 infant deaths that involved bumpers, though to what extent is not always clear.

“The bumper-related deaths are really tragic and really complicated,” says CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. “We’re definitely taking a fresh look at the issue.”

The presence of a bumper in a crib doesn’t necessarily indicate it was responsible for a baby’s death, and it can be difficult to link a death to a crib bumper because of insufficient information in police or coroner reports. But CPSC employees intend to review previous cases, says Wolfson, “taking a different look and asking different questions.” (More on Time.comBye-Bye, Baby: Why Selling Your Crib Hurts)

“We have not been to the point of being able to attribute crib bumpers to a cause of death but we are going back into old cases to see if that determination has changed,” says Wolfson.

Slightly less than half the 52 deaths — 24, according to a CPSC report — were attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or crib failure. The other 28 deaths resulted from suffocation or strangulation, and in most cases, official reports listed bedding as factors in those deaths. According to CPSC’s “White Paper – Unsafe Sleep Settings” from July 2010, details were “minimal” in 18 of the 28 deaths.

In most of the cases where there was available information, two factors were assumed to have contributed to the deaths: the babies were found on their tummies, which contradicts professional recommendations to put babies to sleep on their backs, and “other mitigating factors” — including crib bumpers — were identified. Officials reported that babies were found wedged between pillow and bumper pad,” “caught between blanket and bumper pad,” and “wedged between bumper pad and mattress,” for example. (More on Time.comBaby Asleep in a Drop-Side Crib? Soon They’ll Be Banned)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents remove bumpers once babies are able to pull up so that they can’t use them as a stepstool to vault out of the crib. They also caution against using “soft or pillow-like bumpers,” which are exactly the kind of comfy bumper I used with my three kids. A friend gave me her son’s old Pottery Barn Kids bumper, blue-and-white gingham on one side, embroidered frogs on the other, and oh-so-plush. The fluffier, the better, I thought. After all, who wouldn’t want their child’s crib to be a cozy respite? I used that bumper with all my children, retiring it just a few months ago when my youngest graduated from crib to bed. Pottery Barn, take note of the new advice: when it comes to babies, bigger (and thicker) isn’t always better.

At least for the time being, the CPSC isn’t ready to steer parents away from crib bumpers, but at least one state has headed in that direction. In response to a Chicago Tribune article last month that questioned the safety of crib bumpers, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has urged parents in that state to stop using them.

“We know that children have tragically died in their cribs because of these bumper pads,” said Madigan in a press release. “Parents and caregivers should remove these bumpers to prevent tragedy.” (More on Time.comWhy Do SIDS Deaths Spike on New Year’s Day?)

She cited reports of 14 infants who’ve suffocated due to crib bumpers since 2008, according to statistics from the National Center for Child Death Review.

There are thinner, ostensibly safer, bumpers out there — I purchased a cheap set from Target to use in a crib at my parents’ house — but since 2008, there’s also something called Wonder Bumpers, which encase each crib slat and are designed to allow air flow rather than wrapping around the interior perimeter of the crib as traditional bumpers do. Concern over safety is just a clarion call to creativity for entrepreneurial types, which is exactly how Wonder Bumpers came to be.

“We developed them because we felt there were no safe alternatives,” says Catherine Hall, who helped create San Antonio-based Wonder Bumpers and also founded the nonprofit MISSION – Mothers Investigating Safe Sleep Options for Newborns, where she shares information about safe sleep environments. “Saying don’t use pillow-like bumpers is not enough because the baby can still wedge themselves between the bumper and the crib rail.”

In the past few months, the CPSC has cautioned parents to stop using infant sleep positioners, which are intended to help keep a baby in one position, and banned the sale of drop-side cribs as of this summer. With its latest investigation into crib bumpers, the CPSC is effectively reshaping what it means to set up a nursery.  Cribs are no longer the fluffy, cuddly holding pens they were even a few years ago. Now, the safest crib is a bare crib, devoid of stuffed animals, pillows, comforters and, probably, crib bumpers.